Being alive is a smelly business and unfortunately some of the smells we emit are beyond our control and in some cases, detection. It goes without saying that this can be a problem in a country where smelling good (or inoffensive, at the very least) is up there with godliness and cleanliness. Fortunately, one Japanese company has come up with a device to give users peace of mind by telling them whether they have BO before they become unwitting social pariahs.

Called KunKun (or "sniff sniff"), the pocket-sized sensor is designed to detect diacetyl, ammonia and isovaleric acid and 2-nonenal – chemicals commonly associated with acrid smells such as stale cooking grease, sweaty odors and what the Japanese call kareishuu (old-person smell) and midoru shishuu, which is typically associated with middle-aged people, particularly men.

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Users place the device near the part of the body that they think might be smelly and get the results, which include a breakdown of the different components causing the odor as well as its intensity, via a companion app.

The device is the brainchild of 43-year-old Hiroshi Akiyama, who is part of Konica Minolta's Business Innovation Center, the firm's business development think tank. The seed for the idea was planted on a warm spring day two years ago when he realized that there was no way of objectively telling whether he smelled or not, save for asking his friends directly.

Smelling a market opportunity, he and his colleagues started studying odor-related problems and found that there was more to smelling bad than they had originally thought.

"We found that there's a large variety of body odors, like sweat, underarm, aging body, and middle-age fat odor," he told the Brain Portal Journal in an interview. "The components that make up the smell are all different. What we have to do first is analyze the components to recognize which kind of odor it is so that you can choose the correct type of deodorant [to get rid of it]. I believe it is important to analyze not just the strength of the stench but the different types of smell."

An example of an analysis: The first column on the left measures sweat odors; the middle column shows midoru shishuu or "middle-aged smell", which Japanese scientists believe is caused by the compound diacetyl; the third column shows a user's kareishuu levels (Credit: Konica Minolta)

Working with researchers from the Osaka Institute of Technology, they developed HANA (High Accuracy Nose Assist), a platform that allows them to analyze and evaluate different kinds of odors objectively. That platform is what powers KunKun, which will be launched in Japan this summer.

Coping with the smell of growing old

While Akiyama and his colleagues' preoccupation with smell might seem extreme to many, for men living in a society that extols cleanliness and order, it is something that that they have to contend with once they hit the big 4-0. In fact, there's even a term for it: jikoshu-kyofu or the fear of offending others with your body odor.

The KunKun is not the first gadget or product to address the issue of kareishuu, nor is it likely to be the last. Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido kickstarted the creation of a lucrative niche industry dedicated to stamping this offensive odor out when it announced in 1999 that it had discovered the cause of middle-age stench – a chemical called nonenal. Men in their 40s, it seems, produce more of this compound than anyone else, causing them to smell like fertilizer and – in the words of one 20-something woman – "a cheap sleazy hotel." Ouch.

While this situation might, er, reek of ageism, studies have actually confirmed that our body odor changes with time and that middle-aged men do have a distinct smell. This is due in large part to how active our skin glands are. The higher the level of output, the more material there is for bacteria to break down, causing us to smell. In one particular study, scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia wanted to see if people could detect a person's biological age with their sense of smell and carried out a blind sniff test involving absorbent pads that had spent five nights marinating in the armpits of test subjects of various ages.

The researchers found that despite all the negative connotations associated with the term "old people smell," the geriatrics had a whiff that, while distinctive, was the least offensive of all the age groups. The most pungent one, on the other hand, belonged to – you guessed it - male test subjects in the middle-age bracket. That said, the pong is not permanent and gets milder as one grows older. In fact, old men had the least intense odors, proving that some things do get better with age after all.

Sources: Konica Minolta (in Japanese)

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